In the red Wings Debt, decaying park cloud Rochester's Triple A future

April 29, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

The outfield fences, adorned with advertisements in the style of long-ago ballparks, are rotting from the elements and 62 years of use. The lighting barely meets Triple A standards and is in serious need of new lamps and wiring. The small parking lot outside is a combination of dirt, gravel and angry potholes.

This is Silver Stadium, home of the International League's Rochester Red Wings in upstate New York. While not crumbling, it certainly is showing its age.

This dinosaur of a ballpark sits just off the freeway on the north side of town, not far from the center of a Rochester controversy.

In 1986, the Red Wings took out a $4.5 million loan to refurbish Silver Stadium. They put in new aluminum seats, improved both clubhouses, expanded concession areas and reinforced the stadium structure.

Five years later, they are looking at $4 million in debt service they can't pay and increased operating costs as a result of the latest working agreement between the major and minor leagues. The crisis has reached such dire straits that a month ago, Randy Mobley, the president of the Triple A Alliance, told Rochester government officials they will lose the club in two to five years if they do not relieve the Red Wings of their financial burden.

Not since the mid-1950s, when Morrie Silver saved the franchise after the St. Louis Cardinals pulled up farm club roots, has Rochester settled under such dark, ominous clouds. This is the oldest minor-league city in baseball, now in its 106th season.

Rochester is in its 31st year as a farm club of the Orioles, the longest running affiliation in baseball. The Orioles will play an exhibition game in Rochester Thursday before beginning a nine-game West Coast road trip.

The threat of losing the team appears real, but Red Wings officials don't expect it to happen.

"It's not something I worry about," said Naomi Silver, daughter of the late Morrie Silver, for whom the stadium is named. She is a member of the team's board of directors. "I don't think anyone is willing to allow that to happen."

In an effort to head off impending disaster, a special advisory committee has been appointed by the mayor of Rochester, Thomas P. Ryan Jr., and the Monroe County executive, Thomas R. Frey. The eight-person committee is charged with studying the Red Wings' situation and coming up with recommendations by July 30 to save the team. The two most appealing solutions to the club are (1) to have the city and county governments buy the stadium and lease it to the Red Wings; or (2) have the city and county governments make the debt service payments.

"I have a very high interest in the Red Wings staying in Rochester," Frey said. "They're very important to this town. Am I ready to fork over money to bail them out? I have to see a lot more from them. I want to see the Red Wings get their house in order . . . I don't think they have a stable ownership situation at this point."

Bailing out the Red Wings is no cheap trick. According to team treasurer Chris McWilton, the club has payments of $30,000 a month and $360,000 a year in debt obligation that runs through 1996 and then must be refinanced. In an election year, Rochester politicians are loathe to put that kind of baggage on taxpayers. But in this case they may have no choice.

The Red Wings are noteworthy for reasons other than their longevity. They are one of three teams in minor-league baseball that actually owns its own stadium. Team vice president Gary Larder said that means the Red Wings not only pay on the stadium debt, but also for maintenance of the field and real estate taxes.

"Most sports teams are subsidized by the community," said Larder, a financial planner for Xerox who receives no compensation for his work with the club. "Here, we're paying the community."

The price tag got too steep this year, when the new agreement with the major leagues pushed the Red Wings into deep water. Out of a $2 million operating budget, the Red Wings are responsible for hotel expenses, transportation, clubhouse staff, maintenance of the field and that $4 million debt service. Grounds expenses alone cost $460,000, McWilton said. Their new Player Development Contract with the Orioles will cost the Red Wings an additional $46,000 this year, and that price will go up next season.

During the last three years, the Red Wings have lost $656,874.

"And we haven't asked for a dime [until now]," McWilton said. "Every other International League club gets assistance."

* Beyond the problem of the loan, the Red Wings are faced with the issue of Silver Stadium's long-term viability as a Triple A stadium.

Fred Strauss, chairman of the club's all-volunteer board of directors, pushed for the 1986 renovations as president of the team. He believes Silver Stadium has 10 to 15 years of life left.

"I don't see how you can say we need a new stadium four years after we renovated the one we've got," Strauss said.

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